The Four Faces of Al Qaeda

Deconstructing the Fabled Enemy
24th October 2011

There are four categorically different views of what has been termed Al Qaeda and each has radically different implications for the global war on terror.

The first main view of Al Qaeda is the one advanced by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11, whereby Al Qaeda is a global network of terror comprising cells in 50 or 60 countries. This view of Al Qaeda as a sort of Islamic equivalent of the Bond films SPECTRE was articulated by the 9/11 Commission. Largely authored by neo-conservative insider Philip Zelikow, the Commission said:

With al Qaeda as its foundation, Bin Ladin sought to build a broader Islamic army that also included terrorist groups from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Somalia, and Eritrea. Not all groups from these states agreed to join, but at least one from each did. With a multinational council intended to promote common goals, coordinate targeting, and authorize asset sharing for terrorist operations, this Islamic force represented a new level of collaboration among diverse terrorist groups.

However, as soon as this interpretation been put forward it was subject to criticism and a less centralised view of Al Qaeda was advanced. This notion appeared in Rohan Gunaratnas bestselling book Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. Though Gunaratna repeated the official propaganda about Al Qaeda, saying that it could call on as many as 120,000 fighters, he described the network as more horizontally than vertically structured. He wrote:

Al Qaeda is structured in such a way that it can operate without a centralised command. Its regional bureaus function as the nodal points of its horizontal network outside Afghanistan and liaise with associate groups and Al Qaeda cells. - Inside Al Qaeda (p13)

A slightly different version of this decentralised notion of Al Qaeda appeared in the widely lauded documentary series The Power of Nightmares. It featured interviews with journalist Jason Burke, who explained his thesis to filmmaker Adam Curtis:

There is no Al Qaeda organisation. There is no international network with a leader, with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe. That idea of a coherent, structured terrorist network with an organised capability simply does not exist.'

But Burke was not denouncing the war on terror as a whole:

'There is no organisation with its terrorist operatives, cells, sleeper cells, so on and so forth. What there is is an idea, prevalent among young, angry Muslim males throughout the Islamic world.That idea is what poses a threat.' The Power of Nightmares episode three (video)(transcript)

As such, in this interpretation we are not fighting an international network of terrorists, but an idea. This interpretation of the enemy, of the threat, has been taken up by the Liberal Left against the neo-conservative interpretation of the Bush administration and Zelikow Commission. Burke is a senior journalist for The Guardian and The Power of Nightmares broadcast on the BBC, both considered broadly Liberal Left media organs.

This view has also become the de facto view of the Obama administration. As noted by the Huffington Post shortly after Obama took over the US presidency, he did not use the term war on terror:

Since taking office less than two weeks ago, President Barack Obama has talked broadly of the "enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism." Another time it was an "ongoing struggle." - Huffington Post

Some call it an extension of the domain of the struggle. Others call it mission creep. Instead of fighting a physical enemy, who can be disrupted, captured or most likely killed, we are fighting ideas. This is potentially a much broader fight, one that goes beyond any particular group, however closely or loosely knit. In expanding the battleground from just the physical wars across the Middle East to also include the abstract struggle of ideas, the Obama administration has publicly made a target of anyone and everyone who believes an idea considered to be dangerous.

It is chilling to think that of this broadening of the struggle in the context of a notorious statement made by Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. In a meeting at Chatham House he delivered the annual Whitehead lecture and spoke of the challenges facing the newly-elected president.

Today it is infinitely easier to kill a million people than it is to control a million people. - Brzezinski, Chatham House

This shift in the official interpretation occurred sometime after the publication of Inside Al Qaeda and the broadcast of The Power of Nightmares. Within two hours of the 7/7 bombings in London, agents within the security services told BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner that the attacks bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda.  Yet when the alleged bombers were identified, there was no evidence of them having anything to do with Bin Laden or any centralised command structure. A week after the bombings the head of the Metropolitan Police Sir Ian Blair explained the discrepancy:

Al Qaeda is not an organization. Al Qaeda is a way of working, but this has the hallmark of that approach. - Sir Ian Blair, Fox News

Weeks later, this view of Al Qaeda was also articulated by terrorist mastermind and triple agent Luai Sakra. He was captured in Turkey and ultimately convicted of being behind the 2003 Istanbul bombings. Shortly after his arrest, in August 2005, the Turkish newspaper Zaman reported on the information gleaned from interrogating him.

Al-Qaeda organizes attacks sometimes without even reporting it to Bin Laden. For al-Qaeda is not structured like a terrorist organization. The militants have the operational initiative. There are groups organizing activities in the name of al-Qaeda Even Laden may not know about it. - Today's Zaman

It is perhaps in this context that we must view the comments made by officials in the aftermath of 7/7, especially then Prime Minister Tony Blairs statement on the evening of the attacks that, we know these people act in the name of Islam. Or maybe not. Sakras extensive confessions also supported the third and fourth interpretations of Al Qaeda, which differ radically from the first two. Another Zaman article explained that:

Turkish intelligence specialists agree that there is no such organization as al-Qaeda. Rather, Al-Qaeda is the name of a secret service operation. The concept fighting terror is the background of the low-intensity-warfare conducted in the mono-polar world order. The subject of this strategy of tension is named as al-Qaeda. - Today's Zaman

This suggests that regardless of its shape and structure, Al Qaeda is an operation run by the very intelligence services who claim to be fighting it. Ironically, this idea is not only supported by reports on Sakras confessions, but by the fact that Sakra himself had given information to Turkish, Syrian and American intelligence agencies. He was to some extent working for the very security services who are said to be fighting this network or set of dangerous ideas.

This still leaves two distinct possibilities, and room for two further interpretations. The third interpretation is that Al Qaeda is a proxy force for Western military and intelligence agencies, employed in various theatres as a destabilisation force, a guerrilla network. However, the terrorist attacks that result from this unholy alliance are seen as blowback the unintended consequences of ongoing covert operations. It is this thesis that is primarily pursued in Nafeez Ahmeds 2005 book The War on Truth and his 2006 book The London Bombings: An Independent Investigation.

In particular, Ahmed draws attention to this proxy force being used to foment the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990 and early 2000s. The Bosnian army, and later the KLA, were largely controlled through criminal networks using mujahideen to fight against the Serbs. A similar strategy is being used today in Libya. There, Islamic militants being directed by Western special forces and backed up by a NATO bombing campaign have ousted Colonel Gaddafi. As such, if the terrorist attacks in Paris in 1995, or Istanbul in 2003, or London in 2005 are blowback then it is clear that the governments running these covert operations have little concern for the safety of their own citizens.

Yet there is one further, and darker possibility. The fourth view of Al Qaeda is that rather than terrorist attacks being unintentional consequences of a secret service operation, they are in fact intentional consequences of such an operation. In this view Al Qaeda becomes Al CIAda, a devil spawned and maintained by Western security services. For those who subscribe to this view, responsibility for terrorist attacks is not just a matter of huge criminal negligence and willful indifference to the sanctity of human life. Instead it is a matter of conspiracy and premeditated murder.

This view is not publicly held by many academics or experts, though it is popular in the alternative media. It is supported by the existence of numerous double agents, from Luai Sakra and Ali Mohamed to David Headley and Omar Saeed Sheikh. It is also supported by the historical precedents of covert operations such as that known as Gladio. According to Daniele Ganser's research, secret armies across Europe provoked, enabled or carried out terrorist attacks throughout the Cold War, at the behest of agents within the security services.

Despite this evidence, we should be wary of applying the logic too readily. Just because terrorists were used as proxies for the state to murder civilians during the Cold War does not mean that the same is still going on today. More specifically, it may vary from attack to attack, as it did with Gladio. In 1972 a car-bombing in Peteano in Northern Italy killed three carabinieri. The man responsible was Vincenzo Vinciguerra, a neo-fascist terrorist.

Vinciguerra was a member of right-wing terrorist groups Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale, both of which were infiltrated and controlled by the Italian security services. In Allen Francovich's masterful documentary on Gladio, Vinciguerra confessed that the bombing was an act of revolt against the manipulation of neo-fascism by the state. As such, the attack was blowback, carried out by a terrorist being used as a proxy by the state. Vinciguerra had scratched a five-pointed star into the bonnet of the car before leaving the bomb and calling the police to entice them into his trap. This symbol was the mark of Communists, particularly the Communist terrorist group the Red Brigades. After the bombing there was a cover-up. According to Vinciguerra the authorities all knew within 20 days that he was responsible, but the state helped him flee the country, and blamed anarchists for the attack.

So it was a false flag attack, there was an official cover-up, and the attack was perpetrated by someone who to some extent was an agent of the state, but it was not an intentional self-inflicted wound. Other attacks in Italy in this period, such as the bombings at Piazza Fontana and Bologna train station, were most probably deliberate attacks by the state, but Peteano was not.

Transplanting that pattern onto todays War on Terror, Luai Sakra becomes our modern-day equivalent of Vincenzo Vinciguerra. Both were terrorist double agents, both made confessions and allegations of widespread state involvement in terrorism. Though the recent Operation Sledgehammer trial suggests premeditated state involvement in the Istanbul bombings in 2003, it is also likely that they were blowback, the unintentional result of running Sakra as a spy. Yet this does not mean that other attacks in Paris, Madrid, Bali, New York, Casablanca, Lahore or Mumbai were blowback. Some may be deliberately orchestrated by the state while others are not. Even the CIA sometimes gets burned when it plays with fire.

The first interpretation of Al Qaeda has largely been left behind by those defining the excuses for continuous wars of imperial aggression. The official announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden was the death knell of that particular view of the struggle. Instead we are now supposedly fighting against an amorphous enemy phenomena comprising target governments, ideology and militant groups. The decentralisation of Al Qaeda described by Rohan Gunaratna has conveniently provided the NATO powers with a broader enemy, and hence a broader excuse for conflict, destruction and murder.

While the precise role of the state in 9/11, 7/7 and other atrocities is not yet certain, we can be sure of the fully premeditated role they have played in the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in their bloodthirsty conquests. Many more lives have been shed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere than have died in possible state-sponsored terrorist attacks in NATO countries. So it is not just the states role in terrorist atrocities that needs to be interrogated, but also their role in using those atrocities to propagate and excuse violence on a much larger scale in foreign countries.

What is also certain is that the first two interpretations of Al Qaeda offer only fear, hatred and increased violence. They should be abandoned, not just for their inaccuracy but also for their pessimistic and paranoid implications. The latter two views, by contrast, offer a way to destroy the credibility of some of the powerful governments in the world. Though the latter views offer few, if any, positive solutions to these problems, they are a powerful means of undermining the authority of these institutions, hopefully to the point where they cannot do these things any more. As such, amongst the darkness of those views of Al Qaeda, and hence of the struggles in the world, there is some light.